After my husband, Hugh, was struck by a car while riding his bike home from a workout, doctors rushed him to the nearest trauma center and operated on his brain. The next day, because he responded to family voices, my daughters and I believed he was on the road to recovery.
Less than 48 hours later, Hugh was rushed back into emergency surgery when he developed a right subdural hematoma. This time, doctors performed a craniectomy; they removed a portion of Hugh’s skull to relieve brain swelling. This operation reduces damage to healthy areas of the brain by allowing the brain to swell without being squeezed; it can prevent death and improve outcomes. That piece of bone — about the size of half a grapefruit — was put in the hospital freezer. I was told it would not be replaced for at least three months, the time it would take for Hugh’s brain swelling to recede.
These three months were the longest three months of my life. In the acute brain rehab center, I was told that Hugh should wear a helmet on his head every time he stood up so he would not reinjure his brain. To compound my worries, Hugh felt dizzy, he was wobbly and often tripped when he walked, and he was cognitively impaired. As I waited for him to be “put back together,” I felt as if our life was on hold.
After three months, Hugh’s bone was replaced without incident; and within two weeks, he regained the use of his left side, his dizziness abated, and his balance stabilized. Somehow, having that piece of bone back in his head restored his equilibrium.
I recently talked to a man who went through a similar experience, but he had complications. Bob Gray was a Chief with the Arlington County Fire Department when the 9-11 attacks occurred. He’s known for leading his department’s Technical Rescue Team in its search for survivors at the Pentagon. After 30 years in the department, Bob retired in January 2011. Two months later, he had a freak accident. He sustained a TBI at home when he fell from a ladder.
During surgery, Bob also had a craniectomy, only his surgical site became infected several times. He had to have repeated operations to clean the area. Over the next two and a half years, he spent a lot of time on antibiotics. During his final bone flap surgery, Bob was in the hospital for more than a week. Doctors discovered that the infection had affected both his scalp and part of his skull. When they tested the bone, they found MRSA, a drug-resistant infection, in the bone piece, which could have been deadly. Now Bob lives with a prosthetic bone completing his skull.
Now that the surgery is over and he has finished his last dose of antibiotics, Bob is hoping he will continue to heal with no further setbacks. “This whole process has felt like one step forward and ten steps back,” he says.
Bob’s wife Lesli tells the same version of Bob’s story, but she includes many references to her own personal stress. Like me, she was told Bob should wear a helmet, and, like Hugh, Bob did not like wearing the helmet. The more mobile Bob became, the more worried Lesli grew. With each new surgery, Lesli felt like this would never end. She said, “We were all okay with the idea of a new normal, but it started to feel like even that was not a realistic goal.” Hopefully, Bob’s prosthetic bone has resolved the problems related to his infections.
Today, Bob is back to dedicating his time to Project Rebirth, an organization dedicated to facilitating healing, fostering hope, and building resilience among first responders, veterans, and other community leaders. He’s glad to be back to his active lifestyle. Lesli says that she’s okay with how he’s doing, but she feels anxious when he is doing anything (like cycling) where he might fall. “I am hoping that more time will reduce the Nervous Nellie in me!” she says.
There are two similarities worth noting in our stories: both Hugh and Bob felt more incapacitated when part of their skull was taken out (dizzy, out of balance); and both Lesli and I experienced a lasting sense of anxiousness. My anxiousness has lessened with the passage of time, and I hope hers will, too.
I’m also hoping that through our stories others may feel more prepared if a loved one should have to undergo this procedure and may not be alarmed if they experience similar setbacks until the bone is replaced. I’m grateful that Hugh had a craniectomy. It’s a life-saving procedure for sure.